A Child of the Theatre Part I

For the record, I never chose to be an actor. I was three years old, it was The Upstart Crow’s second season, and they needed a kid for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I was the only kid anyone in the company knew and so I started doing Shakespeare at age three.

Leontes (John Stadler) and Mamilius (Alexis Bell) in The Winter’s Tale (1982)

33 years, and 46 roles later, I guess, I have to admit, I like being an actor. In fact the last large role I did was in Frederico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding, another show we did in the second season.

The Neighbor, The Mother (Mary Bell), The Servant (Kathy Dubois Reed), The Bride (Lorree True) in Blood Wedding (1981)
The Bride (Alexis Bell), The Neighbor (Felicia Tuttle), The Mother (Katherine Dubois Reed) in Blood Wedding (2014)

Of course if you notice, Kathy Dubois Reed was in both those productions. And although that was my last large role, my next one will be in our first show of our 36th Season, Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw. In fact, Kathy’s going to be in it as well.

In the mean time, people love to ask me what it was like growing up in the theatre. I sometimes say, “I don’t know. It’s the only way I ever grew up.” But as we go through the history of the company, I’ll try to answer that question with a few more details.

Which brings us back to The Winter’s Tale and the bear. No not the famous stage direction for the play ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ but the small stuffed bear I was given to play with on stage. My parents idea was to give me a toy I was only allowed to play with during the play, to keep me from getting bored. It was the adults they didn’t take into account. One night one of the actors thought it would be fun to put a string on the bear. That night while Leontes was holding me giving a heart breaking speech, I kept hitting him in the face with the bear on a string.

I assure you, I have grown as an actor since then.


Repertory (or Why We Repeat Plays)

The summer of 1981: We were planning our second season. We were pretty bushy tailed then and flushed with success: We had done a season of classical plays and we had turned a profit. We knew we were an ensemble, and a classical ensemble, but we wanted to be more. We wanted to be a repertory company as well. That meant we would return to the same plays from time to time: certain plays, the greatest plays, would be in our permanent repertoire. The Importance of Being Earnest was a great sucess in our first season so we would do it again. In repertory with—with what play? What would be the perfect companion to alternate performance nights with Earnest? There have been famous pairings of plays done that way: Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra alternating with Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra; Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival this summer is doing Henry V and its sort of sequel, Henry VI, Part I. 

Gwendolyn (Lorree True), Merriman (Kris Barstow), Cecily (Katherine Dubois Reed) in The Importance of Being Earnest (1980)

So, what did we choose? Is there a play that shares characters with Earnest the way those above share characters? No. Is there a play that is somehow thematically related, whose pairing with Earnest will reward an audience by comparing and contrasting the treatment of similar themes? Well, Earnest is about how the infant Earnest Worthing was mistakenly placed in a handbag that was lost at a railway station, and who was brought up by foster parents and ultimately learned who his real parents were and got married to live happily ever after. Well, there is another famous play about an infant abandoned by his parents who grows up and learns who they were and . . . and is already married, it turns out, to his mother and she hangs herself and he blinds himself and lives in exile ever after.

So you see, Earnest and Oedipus Rex are simply two versions of the same story.

Cecily (Alexis Bell), Merman (Gregory Reed), Gwendolyn (Lisa Hoyt) in The Importance of Being Earnest (2003)

And, of course, I’m just making this up on the spur of the moment, as I go along. I have no idea, now, 34 years later, why we thought those two plays belonged together as a double bill. I think—and I may be making this up too—that we just wanted to do Oedipus, but were afraid of it. We thought a Greek tragedy, perhaps the darkest of all the Greek tragedies, was simply not up to the taste of a modern audience, and, by pairing it with our most successful comedy we would at least break even on the combination. Or maybe we just wanted to do Earnest again; we had a wonderful time with it, but were afraid that doing it again so soon might not draw our audience back so we would hedge by combining it with quite a different, but excellent, play that would bring in our existing audience and a new audience. Whatever.

Oedipus (John Stadler) Jocasta (Ruth Helz) in Oedipus (1981)

Anyway, it’s really hard, in your second season, to say you are a repertory company unless you simply repeat the first season more or less forever. We repeated Earnest but we picked five more plays that we had not already done (It was only our second season.): Oedipus, Federico Garcia-Lorca’s Blood Wedding, Albert Camus’ Caligula, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, and William Shakespeare’s: The Winter’s Tale. Now, except for Caligula, we’ve done all these plays again. We did Earnest again in 1987 and in 2003. We did Oedipus again in 2001. We did Blood Wedding again last year. We did Arms and the Man again in 1988. We did The Winter’s Tale again in 2003.

Why? Why do a play again for an audience, pretty much the same audience, who saw our last production of that play? Actually we’ve only done that once: with Earnest. It was virtually the same production, with only a couple of the smallest roles played by different actors, but it was as much like an extension of the run of a production, as it was a new production of the same play. But when we did Oedipus again it was hardly the same play. Yes the script and the music were the same but that was about it. The first production had a cast of eight speaking roles and a chorus of eleven singers and dancers. Nobody doubled in more than one role.

Jocasta (Joan Kuder Bell), Oedipus (Eric Wahlberg) in Oedipus (2001)

But our second Oedipus had a total cast of eight. Eight actors entered. One of them was wearing a headdress that was almost a mask and a royal robe. He was Oedipus and he spoke the opening speech to the chorus: the rest of the cast. At the end of the speech one member of the chorus went upstage to a costume rack, put on the headdress and robe of a priestess and continued the scene. Then Creon entered. That is, the priestess took off her priestess mask and robe and rejoined the chorus. Another actor—another member of the chorus—put on the mask and robe of Creon and played the next scene as that character. And so for the rest of the play.

And so it is with every repeat of a script. Different actors, usually a different director, always different mounting. But suppose they were much the same (as with our Earnest). If you liked it the first time you’ll like it again. How many times have you seen The Nutcraker? Or A Christmas Carol?  Has anyone ever said “Why should I go to the concert? They’re doing Beethoven’s Ninth and I’ve already heard it.” Or “I’m not going to the Louvre. I’ve already seen the Mona Lisa.”

Season One – Even Theatre Companies Have to Find Themselves

Richard Bell took time out of his busy schedule to give some insight into The Upstart Crow’s first season.
Richard Bell
Richard Bell with The Upstart Crow mascot

In 1980 we had closed our first play, The Way of the World, and to our surprise  we had made a small profit on it.

Fainall (Alphonse Keasley), Mirabell (Dan McNellan), Squire Witwoud (Sam Sandoe) in The Way of the World (1980)

So we thought we’d try it again. But finding a classical play we could mount with almost no set and with costumes out of thrift shops seemed daunting. (It was a small profit.) But there was a strong feeling about the avant-garde theatre at the time and the avant-garde plays around at the time looked like they could be done with no set at all, and with pretty much any costumes the actors might already own. The avant-garde drama in 1980 was the theatre of the absurd and existentialist theatre, and that looked like the way to go. The best of that genre was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but that required four men, one boy, and a tree. So it seemed like a poor choice for a company that wanted to center on an ensemble. (We had as many women as men, and some of our best actors were what we used to call actresses. [We’ve done Godot twice, but that is an article for another time.]) King Lear or Saint Joan costumed out of thrift stores just didn’t seem quite right, so we looked to Eugene Ionesco. We found three one-acts that could be done in pretty much any costume style you can imagine and required  only a table and several folding chairs: The Chairs (of course), Jack, or the Submission, and The Bald Soprano. We called the show Trionesco, and, guess what, we made a small profit on it and audiences liked it.

Old Man (Bill Grebe), Old Woman (Ruth Helz) in The Chairs (1980)

So, clearly, that was the way to go. But the actors did not enjoy it. The directors of the three plays did; there are creative things one can do with these absurd plays that you just cannot do with realistic plays; things that free up a director, but give the actor impossible motivations. How does a director tell an actor what should be his motivation, what his character means, when they have to speak lines like these:

Mr. Smith: The pope elopes! The pope’s got no horoscope. The horoscope’s bespoke

Mrs. Martin: Bazaar, Balzac, bazooka!

Mr. Martin: Bizarre, beaux-arts, brassieres!

Mr. Smith: A, e, i, o, u, a, e, i, o, u, a, e, i, o, u, i!

Mrs. Martin: B, c, d, f, g, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, x, z!

Mr. Martin: From sage to stooge, from stage to serge!

Mrs. Smith: Choo, choo, choo, choo, choo, choo, choo, choo, choo, choo!

Here is Joan Kuder Bell, in full Stanislavski Method acting reading that last line:

Mr Martin (Paul Ahrens), Mrs Smith (Jo Bell), Mr Smith (Alphonse Keasley), Mrs Martin (Lorree True) in The Bald Soprano (1980)

So, for our third play, we wanted something that would really engage the actors. Way of the World was all style and wit; Trionesco was all—well—absurd. And of course, both were comedies. We wanted depth of character, seriousness of purpose, compelling tragic irony, and something that would push us, as actors, to our limits.

We knew we wanted to be an actors’ company, an ensemble company. Most of us had come out of academic theatre, and in that kind of theatre, in high school and in college, we worked with the same actors in show after show. In this show I am your lover. In the last show I was your murderer. In the one before that I was your landlord. Growing up together as actors gave us a kind of comfort and strength and courage. When we left school, those of us who continued in community theatre, we were now acting with strangers. Loving someone, killing someone, is easier to do five nights a week if you have done it before—with her.  And you do it better.

A couple of us who founded The Upstart Crow had worked together in a few shows in a community theatre. Once, at an-end-of-the-season meeting of performers and patrons of the theatre the business manager of that theatre announced, with pride, that they had cast 104 roles that season and that those roles had been played by 100 different actors. (We two were half of the four who had appeared twice.) We did not think those numbers were anything to be proud of. Yes, it meant the theatre was a place were lots of people could do community outreach, much like serving from time to time at a bake sale, but it had very little to do with our desire—our compulsion, even—to perform as artists.

That may have been the defining moment in the creation of The Upstart Crow. We would be an ensemble: a dues-paying membership company of actors who would pick the shows we would do, pick directors (out of our membership), and cast ourselves, first, in the primary roles.

Jacqueline (Lorree True), Grandfather Jack (John Stadler), Grandmother Jack (Joan Kuder Bell), Jack (Bill Grebe), Mother Jack (Ruth Helz) in Jack, or The Submission (1980)

So, for our third show we picked something we thought would make our actors sweat. That would be Ibsen. So we chose a late Ibsen; Little Eyolf, a wonderfully profound (and deeply disturbing) play by the first and perhaps greatest modern dramatist.

Joan Bell, who said “Choo, choo, choo …” with great feeling in The Bald Soprano, directed; Kathy Reed, who had two noses in Jack, or the Submission played the female lead in Eyolf; I, Richard Bell, who directed all her noses, now played her husband. And so forth.

And how do we stack up against the 100 actors who played 104 roles? Well, over 35 years, we have had about 400 actors. And they have played about 1800 roles. And more: four actors who were in The Way of the World in 1980 performed with us in our last, our 35th season. That’s an ensemble.

Before The Upstart Crow

When I first moved to Boulder in August 2012, I was fresh out of undergraduate school, my BA in Theatre Arts hot off the presses. I was eager to get started in the professional world but was hesitant and unsure of how to begin. Before I moved, I had been researching local theatre companies and one in particular really caught my eye. The Upstart Crow was performing Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, one of my favorite plays from an even more favorite playwright. When I finally arrived in Boulder, they were auditioning for another challenging yet interesting show, Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. I read the play and although I didn’t have a particular role in mind, I did lean towards playing Hester Worsley. I decided to audition and to my delight I got it! Since then I have played six different roles (one male role included) and designed make-up and masks for six, for a total of ten different shows with The Upstart Crow.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Joan and Richard Bell, two founding members, and interview them on the beginning of the Upstart Crow ensemble theatre company.

They had been talking about doing The Trojan Women. Richard was working for a program at a free school, which is an institution that no longer exists. Richard says, “After the sixties, you know, after that period, there were free schools all over America; just a bunch of people that would get together. They would find a building, anyone could teach there. They could charge students or not as they chose. They were all wonderfully open and easy.”

There was a federal program that Richard applied for and got a role in. It was actually subsidized theatre. There were many requirements to get in. Richard was a veteran and unemployed at the time. “And it was terrific!” he says. He was payed $25 a week. He was able to perform improv in a number of places: “housing developments and places like that.” While doing that Richard, Joan, and India Cooper (another founding member) started talking about doing a play like The Trojan Women. Joan and Cooper were both a little against because Joan had always wanted to play Andromache. She said she would never be cast because she was “too short and too girlish.” Cooper dreamed of playing Cassandra but claimed she “wasn’t good-enough looking.”

This conversation sparked an idea. Richard said, “Let’s do it, let’s do the casting that way. You know, let’s cast against type.” So they put together a script. No one in the group read Greek, but Richard was able to compile a version by reading seven different translations. He liked other translations but claimed they weren’t human-English speech. He said they were definitely poetic but “most of the scripts are full of expressions of sorrow like “ah me.” No one in grief would ever say “ah me.” You would only say that if you were parodying grief. You know, its simply not human utterance and I found it in all the translations.” So Richard put the translations together and came up with an American-verse adaptation.

They first performed their version of The Trojan Women at the community free school and then were invited to do it at the Longmont dinner theatre, which is now Jester’s Dinner Theatre. Richard recalls it being called The Dickens Opera House at the time. “And so we did The Trojan Women,” Richard says through laughter, “to a dinner audience. And they were stunned.” It was a good production from Richard’s perspective. The cast and crew wanted to keep it going, following that show with Vain Flourish of My Fortune: Margaret of Anjou, a play Joan scripted from cuttings of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and Richard III.

Vain Flourish featured Queen Margaret of Anjou, a character that, although never a lead, is seen throughout the whole Henry cycle. Richard and Joan say there were some wonderful female roles like Joan of Arc and many duchesses.

And so they cast it. Richard says in many ways he thought it was quite good. He did claim that their cast was too small, they doubled roles too much. After all, while each of the women played a single momentary starring role, Richard played about five different characters, that’s all. He also felt the play was difficult to end. “Margaret’s story is not satisfactorily finished. And we did the best we could to give it a finish but she just stops talking after awhile. We don’t know what happens to her.” But it was fun.

They were drinking one night during the performance (at which point Joan jumped in to point out they were drinking after the performance) and someone had the idea to start a theatre company. Richard was rightfully worried about how to start a company without any money when cast member Paul Ahrens pulled out his checkbook. They decided to do it. With Ahrens donation and $10 from everyone else, they had $600 for their theatre company.

The Upstart Crow’s first official season began with William Congreve’s The Way of the World “in twenties costumes because we could find them in thrift stores.”

Mrs. Millament (Joan Kuder Bell) in The Way of the World (1980)

It was reasonably well-attended. They charged $2 in advance and $3 at the door. They performed at Boulder’s community free school, a former Baptist church on the corner of Broadway and Balsam. Their stage was the church’s altar, bright blue wall behind them with doors leading off the stage, one on each side that locked from the outside. On one occasion, Richard says cast member Ruth Morel tried to make an exit in J.M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows, a show they later did that season (which, incidentally, will be our second show of the 36th season). Morel found she couldn’t get off the stage. She pounded on the door and ended up exiting through the audience and unlocking the door from the other side. “So many interesting things happened in that theatre,” Richard says.

Lavarcham (Ruth Helz) in Deirdre of the Sorrows (1980)

The Upstart Crow has been performing four or five shows every season from then on.

As The Crow Flies will feature history, stories, pictures, and anything else we may come up with highlighting the 35 years of Boulder’s The Upstart Crow. We hope you enjoy!

Welcome to As The Crow Flies!

Welcome to the Upstart Crow’s new blog As The Crow Flies. Either you are a long time friend of Boulder, Colorado’s 35-year-old ensemble theatre company or perhaps you wound up here on accident and are wondering who exactly this company is. Whatever the case may be, I’m here, among others, to give you an introduction to this wonderful and interesting company of people and give a little history on how Upstart Crow began.

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